Last Minute Salvation
Before Siddhartha became Buddha, the story goes that the prince saw ‘Four Sights’: an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a holy man. Death compels him out of the palace walls and on the path to salvation. I can’t help but see a parallel to Mr. Watanabe, the lifeless bureaucrat at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru (‘To Live’). He is diagnosed with stomach cancer and given six months to live. He’s the old man, the sick man and corpse rolled into one (his colleagues call him “The Mummy”) and finally sees his own reflection. Death compels him out of the walls of his government office to seek last-minute salvation (in a way it’s ‘Breaking Good’). To both Siddhartha and Watanabe, death is a positive driving force.
I’m not implying Kurosawa has made a Buddhist film. Its themes are universal. Ikiru is political and humanist as much as it is spiritual. Watanabe is trapped in a cycle of bureaucracy—a manmade samsara. Making up for 30 years of lost time, we accompany him on a sort of crash course through human existence. He drinks and stumbles through Tokyo at night—finding nothing. He falls in (platonic) love with a young girl—failing to reclaim his youth through another. Only by opposing the system, actually getting something done from his small sphere of influence (like a pre-Leslie Knope), does he find freedom. At last, he leaves a footprint in the snow. I’d rather not give too much away but the final act is a masterful stroke from Kurosawa. His film culminates with satire and hope in perfect balance. Watanabe begins in a tomb of unstamped documents and ends in a playground, a kid once more.